By Stan Crock When a Soviet pilot defected with his MiG-25 to Japan in 1976, U.S. military officials were stunned when they examined what they thought was the most advanced fighter jet in the world. The Russians, it turned out, were still using old-fashioned vacuum tubes instead of state-of-the-art transistors and computer chips. For all their vaunted military reputation, the Soviets seemed incredibly backward. Eventually though, it dawned on the Americans that the Soviets had figured out the old tubes would be less vulnerable to the electro-magnetic pulse of a nuclear blast than some newer components.
Innovation, in other words, comes in many forms, and technology doesn't always mark progress. That's an important lesson in this day and age, when for so many people tech is king. Take President Bush and the Pentagon. The Commander-in-Chief wants the Defense Dept. to skip a generation of weapons and harness new technology to improve combat forces.
But new gizmos don't guarantee improved battle performance. Case in point: the Army's proposed "digitized" battlefield, in which the U.S. military hopes to develop sensors, data transmission, and whiz-bang communications technology to give its fighters a better idea of where both the enemy and comrades are. The Bush Administration has proposed increasing the budget for digitization to $289 million in fiscal 2002 from $223 million in fiscal 2001. The hope is that such moves can preserve America's technological edge over any potential rival.
FRIENDLY FIRE. Pentagon analyst Chuck Spinney recently asked an unidentified retired Army lieutenant colonel whether more complex equipment would help or hurt the grunts in tanks. The former officer's response was a decidedly mixed bag for technology lovers. He described the mock battle in April, held at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. For starters, he said the digitized forces, which are based at Fort Hood, Tex., killed more of their colleagues (friendly-fire kills) than did the nondigitized forces. How could that be, since the upgraded units supposedly had the greater "situational awareness" that the technology was supposed to provide?
Seems that when a communication outage occurs, the digitized maps retain the previous position of friendly units. But those aren't the real locations if the units move. The lieutenant colonel thinks this may have been responsible for the friendly-fire fatalities. A spokesman for the training office that ran the exercise couldn't confirm that the digitized forces did worse, saying the reports on the exercise haven't been completed yet.
Aggravating matters, the equipment itself could be a distraction. Data are entered via a keyboard, which requires a tank commander to have his head down -- not the best position. Based on his experience in three tours of duty in Vietnam, the lieutenant colonel concluded that the system "would be hard to use when traveling and impossible to use in combat."
HELPFUL DATA? Proponents of digitization argue that the systems are still in their infancy and will take time to perfect. Even the lieutenant colonel, who wrote about the Fort Irwin exercise for Spinney, isn't convinced that the systems should be tossed out. If the soldiers and sailors fighting battles can be helped by getting more information in ways that don't hamper their ability to fight, he wouldn't object.
That, of course, has always been the theory behind digitization. But theory doesn't always translate into reality. What's needed are more on-the-ground experiments and tests to see whether this or any other technological innovation is really progress -- or just another bright idea whose time may never come. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views twice a month, only on BW Online